In Memoriam: Professor Julian Leff (1938-2021)


Professor Julian Paul Leff

Professor Julian Paul Leff, aged 82, died at home on Tuesday 23 February, 2021 surrounded by the family he loved. Julian was a pioneer in cultural and social psychiatry leading on several innovative approaches.


Born in London on 4 July 1938 to a family committed to equality and equity, he carried these values into his working life. Julian’s maternal great-grandfather, Marcus, migrated from Lithuania to the UK, and it was this family history - combined with his upbringing - that first influenced Julian's interest in this area. Indeed, he was sensitive to issues related to migration and the role family plays in the life of an individual whether they have mental illness or not. Julian continued to advocate for individuals with psychiatric disorders, their families and carers throughout his career. His research interests formed the cornerstone of practice of social psychiatry.


Juliam trained at the Maudsley and joined the MRC Social Psychiatry Unit which was then led by Professor John Wing. He also worked closely with Professor George Brown and Dr Jim Birley and further developed research on expressed emotion of carers and relapse of schizophrenia. As Deputy Director of the Unit, he led on the study of discharge of patients into the community, following 1500 patients after the closure of two psychiatric asylums in north London. After Professor Wing retired, Julian returned to direct the MRC Social Psychiatry Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry. In this role, he directed epidemiological studies of schizophrenia in different ethnic groups and in the Caribbean countries, and on public attitudes to deinstitutionalisation among others. He remained an active researcher even after retirement - developing Avatar therapy which has shown to be effective in individuals with hallucinations. It is now being studied and rolled out internationally.


In recognition of his contribution to social psychiatry Julian was awarded the inaugural Burgholzli Award from the University of Zurich in 1999, the Marsh Award for Mental Health Work in 2010, and the prestigious Pelicier Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Association of Social Psychiatry in 2017. He was awarded honorary Fellowship - the highest honour given by the Royal College of Psychiatrists - in 2015.

From a personal perspective, I had the privilege of working with Julian as a Lecturer from 1989-1993. He was a genuinely kind and generous colleague and mentor. He thoroughly enjoyed teaching and was always highly rated by trainees and students. The Unit attracted colleagues from all over the world; they arrived as co-workers - and left as friends.


Julian loved playing the piano and cooking, and - with his wife Joan - hosted wonderful parties at their house in Hampstead. After retirement, he continued to study music and sing in choirs. He enjoyed swimming and playing squash with his sons. He also continued to study silk-screening, ceramics and sculpture, and became an ardent silver-smith, designing and making exceptional jewellery. His truly wonderful sense of fun stood him in good stead when, in the last few years, he lived with a cruel degenerative disease with calmness and humour.


Julian is survived by his partner, the noted Psychoanalyst and Transcultural Psychologist, Joan Raphael-Leff, his four children [Alex, Jessa, Jonty and Adi] and nine grandchildren, including the four Norwegian daughters of his late stepson, Michael.


Author: Prof Dinesh Bhugra, Past President WPA (2014-2017)

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